By Jane Bartnett
For Siesta Key resident Dan Witten, shells are gifts from the gulf waters. Discovering the most elusive and beautiful shells on the island’s sandy shores began as a casual interest and soon turned into a passion that he and his wife, Robin, both share.
After retiring about six years ago from Selby Gardens as a horticulturalist, where Witten managed the children’s rain forest, the lifelong baseball enthusiast began attending games at the Baltimore Orioles’ Ed Smith Stadium in Sarasota. There, he met people sitting next to him who had also discovered shell collecting. Soon, he became enthralled with this new amateur hobby that is formally known as conchology.
“In horticulture,” Witten said, “things blend together, including colors and all.”
Shells, he explained, with their great variety of shapes and colors, are also a part of the natural world and equally intriguing. Like flowers and plants, shells exist in colors ranging from purple, pink, green and yellow. Their sometimes striking colors and patterns are the result of heredity and nature.
“I focus on the local shells,” said Witten. “There’s plenty to choose from on the Siesta Key beaches.”
After joining the local Sarasota Shell Club, as well as the Sanibel Shell Club, Witten discovered other conchologists and soon discovered the best places to go and hunt for his treasures both on the Key and off.
“Early morning during low tide is best,” he advised. “Occasionally, shells from Caribbean islands will find their way to Gulf Coast beaches when storms and currents churn up the waters.”
When heading out on his shelling expeditions, Witten favors the shores of Selby Gardens where shells from Siesta Key drift into the bay and become lodged amidst the mangroves.
“The trick,” he said, “is to go out at low tide and wade in knee deep when the water is clear.”
On Siesta Key, Witten advised against Turtle Beach. “It’s not the best place to go shelling,” he said.
However, “Point of Rocks is a catch basin for shells,” he noted.
For serious shelling off the Key, Witten recommends a trip to Sanibel Island, where he says the shoreline offers a “treasure chest of beautiful shells.”
At times, he explained with great enthusiasm, “the whole beach may be covered in sand-dollar shells.”
There, shellers will also find the Bailey-Mathews National Shell Museum.
A source of wonder and desirable collectables for thousands of years, shells were used by native people as tools, weapons, currency and decoration. In India, shells were a part of religious ceremonies. On the Hawaiian Islands, the conch horn is considered to have sacred meaning.
Today, shells are found in works of art, in jewelry, and displayed in their natural form. Shell collecting, according to the Concologists of America website, is second in popularity only to stamp collecting.
Witten’s home reflects his passion for the lovely objects that at one time were the places that snails, oysters, clams, scallops and mussels called home. In his home office, Witten maintains a collection of shells that are categorized and saved in protective boxes. He and his wife also showcase their treasures throughout their home.
It’s clear that they both are fascinated by the small treasures from the sea, such as the rare scaphella junonia and the larger “lion’s paw” scallop shell that he calls “the biggest find of all.”
Witten’s more common discoveries include the horse conch (Florida’s state shell), the banded tulip, and the common spiny jewel box. His personal favorite is the King Crown Conch.
Sarasota Shell Club president Sally Peppitoni, a Manatee High School physics teacher, said that the mission of the non-profit organization is to promote the love of shells, educate people about shells and mollusks, and to promote their study.
Witten’s enthusiasm for shell collecting, she noted, is mirrored by the club’s 150-plus members. She explained that in addition to avid shell collectors, many other club members are shell artisans who meet weekly to create works of art and beautiful arrangements.
“If you love to go to the beach and wonder about the shells along the shore, we’re for you,” she said.
The club meets in person on the second Thursday of each month, from September through April, at the Bee Ridge Presbyterian Church fellowship hall at 4826 Macintosh Rd. It welcomes new members.
The annual Sarasota Shell Club Shell Show, now in its 58th year, is the highlight of the club’s yearly activities. Open to the public, the event will be held Friday, Feb. 11 and Saturday, Feb. 12, at the Sarasota Fair Grounds’ Potter Building on Fruitville Road.
“We’ll have exhibitors from all over the country and there will be judging in both scientific and artistic categories,” said the club president.
Artists who work in shells as well as shell vendors will be on hand selling rare and exotic shells from around the world, and experts will speak on topics ranging from crafting with shells to environmental and scientific topics.
Details on the 2022 Shell Show as well as membership information for the Sarasota Shell Club is available at sarasotashellclub.com